Game Design & Ethics

I think I’ve now digested and discussed enough of the happenings at this year’s GDC to round off my feelings on this topic for a while at least. Some of what is discussed here is in the context of my previous two posts on the topic and a few controversial talks by Jesse Schell, Chris Hecker and Ben Cousins from EA.

How ethics interacts with game design is an area that arouses much passionate feeling, not least because if you tell someone that they might possibly have acted less ethically that they potentially could have, even unknowingly, there is a good chance they will take personal offence. There are also those who believe that ethics is all relative and those who believe that ‘art’ is inherently outside of ethics. The games industry also has a long history of having to defend itself against moral crusaders who believe that games are ‘for kids’ and thus should not be allowed the full range of expression that other media are allowed. Touch on ethics near games enthusiasts and you will inevitably cause someone to instantly reach for their defensive shield. Indeed most early discussions of game design ethics that I can recall would only focus on the visual content and themes, and not on the mechanics of games. I’m thinking particularly of this piece from Dean Takahashi as a prime example. It’s only been more recently that people have begun to consider that the structure of the systems that we create could themselves have an ethical dimension.

Another defensive reaction against discussion of game design ethics I’ve been seeing post-GDC is from people assuming that a reaction against the design mechanics of Farmville must really be a reaction against ‘new things’. This too is understandable, whenever there has been a new demographic, type of platform or way of playing games there is always a host of people saying both ‘this is the most amazing thing ever and will comprise the sole future of the medium’ and others decrying it as a ‘corruption of the form, ruining everything I ever loved’ when in truth things rarely pan out anything like this. It’s unfortunate really that Farmville happens to be both part of a new platform & demographic and leading the way in the kind of less ethical game mechanics that some designers have been complaining about from before Farmville even existed. There was always going to be some confusion.

Jonathon Blow, creator of Braid and all-round game design wise man has been making these same points since at least 2007 where his prime example at the time was World of Warcraft, the same arguments could have been used back in 1980 with Rogue used as the example. The ethical concerns with mechanics can stand apart from any particular new demographic or trends. What has changed is a growing awareness among designers of the effects these mechanics can have on players and with that knowledge comes increased responsibility. I found a great explanation of the conditioning effects that games can have from 2008 over on Edge’s website:

“Reward structures allow for conditioning”
Calling this the Pavlov’s Dog Problem is a little misleading. We do both classical conditioning and operant conditioning through games. The root of classical conditioning is generating an instinctual response to arbitrary stimuli by associating those stimuli with events which naturally cause the instinctual response. Here’s an example from Aliens Vs Predator: in the game Aliens Vs Predator the marine carries a motion detector that lets out a very distinct and specific “ping” noise, that ping implies that something’s on its way to kill you. The verisimilitude of the experience was good enough that the player really got into the mindset of the hunted marine. That ping would almost always be followed by a terrifying life or death struggle. To this day, on the rare occasion that I hear a noise similar to that ping I go into fight or flight.

What if that “ping” was replaced by shouting in Arabic…

Perhaps less insidious but more common is the operant conditioning that almost every game indulges in. The core principle of operant conditioning is associating rewards or punishment with voluntary behavior. Imagine training a dog. When it does something you like you give it a treat. When it does something you don’t like you yell at it or spray it with a water bottle (or conversely you take away its favorite toy if it does something bad or you take off its choker when it’s good). The effect? Eventually the dog becomes trained to behave a specific way, even if the incentive is removed.

Let’s break that down a little further. The dog is faced with a choice. Initially it chooses of its own free will. Later it chooses a specific way because it’s being incentivized to by an outside entity. Lastly it simply stops choosing. What once was a choice is now a reaction.

Who tries to pet the Koopas anymore?

Games are very powerful tools for training and conditioning responses from their players. It’s why the armed forces all over the world use battlefield simulators based on video games. Most people learn and are trained best through performing actions, through interaction and through reward structures.

Variable ratio reward structures aren’t the only methods that designers can use to condition player behaviour, though it is the one I’m most familiar with. I’ve also heard reports of games that take advantage of social conditioning theories. One that I read this week (but can’t locate at this minute) detailed a micro-transaction driven MMO whose top-selling items were an item that allowed one player to publically shame another and a second item that protected players from the effects of the first item. Through the design system a system not unlike a protection racket has developed with the only real beneficiary being the developer/publisher making the micro-transaction revenue. Is this a less ethical way to design an MMO? I think so. There may be many more examples of game mechanics whose effects on their players aren’t currently well understood and I think it is worth all designers attempting to view their design mechanics through an ‘ethical lens’ and considering carefully what effects they are having on the players that interact with them.

Just because a player is playing your game over and over doesn’t mean that it is necessarily enriching their life. If games are a far more powerful medium for shaping behaviour than film, music or literature, as seems almost certain, then with that power comes a responsibility. We have to make sure that we, as designers are aware of the behaviours we are shaping and why and, if we want to treat our players as ends rather than means we owe it to them to avoid shaping their behaviour negatively. It becomes our responsibility to avoid wasting their time and money.

Next time I’ll try to talk about something more silly.

3 responses to “Game Design & Ethics

  • Anon

    The response I typically get to these kind of concerns is that they are patronising to our players, and are broadly the result of the audience’s idea of fun being different from ours. That the audience is getting something positive from the time spent with our games is beyond question. There’s this odd belief that we can borrow from behaviourism and fun will just happen somewhere along the way, despite fun being outside of the field’s concern.

  • G.

    Knock Knock.
    Who’s There?
    Interrupting Cow.
    Interrupting C-…

    (time for a new post Mr. L!)

  • Gaming, Right or Wrong? « Game My Brand

    […] Update: Just read another great post on the subject of ethical games here. […]

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